Director and Free the Bid founder Alma Har’el on supporting female filmmakers

The award-winning director talks to CR about addressing adland’s gender imbalance and making her voice heard in a male-dominated industry

“Most of the female filmmakers I know never get the same opportunities to prove themselves as men do,” says Alma Har’el. “When they do, they have to be more professional, more strategic, they usually get paid less and if they fail, they hardly [ever] get a second chance.”

Alma Har’el taught herself how to make films using a laptop and a cheap videocamera. She has since directed two feature films (Bombay Beach and LoveTrue) as well as ads for Stella Artois and Airbnb and music videos for Sigur Rós and Beirut.

Her success is an inspiring story for any female director starting out in the industry. But female filmmakers remain in the minority. There has been much discussion about the lack of female voices in Hollywood yet in 2016, just 7 percent of all directors working on the 250 highest grossing US films were female – a 2 percent decline from the previous year. In adland, the figures aren’t much better: a report by Mashable in 2015 revealed that less than 10 percent of directors signed to major production companies are women.

Alma Har'el, director of LoveTrue and Bombay Beach and founder of Free the Bid
Alma Har’el, director of LoveTrue and Bombay Beach and founder of Free the Bid

It was Mashable’s report – and her experience in filmmaking – that led Har’el to set up Free the Bid: an initiative aimed at helping female directors land more work. In September last year, she set up a website and asked agencies to pledge to include a female director every time they triple-bid (put three directors forward) for an ad.

More than 50 agencies have pledged to do so since Free the Bid was launched, including BBDO, FCB, Unit9, Mother and 72andsunny. Visa, HP, Coca-Cola and eBay have also signed up to support the project and Har’el says the response has been overwhelming.

“The momentum has been unstoppable,” she says. “My main challenge was that I started it alone on my laptop and had no way of accommodating the wave that it brought. Now that HP and Visa have stepped in and supported us I managed to hire some great people and we’re about to officially expand to Brazil and the UK.”

Still from Jellywolf, a film about scent created for Chanel and i-D project The Fifth Sense

Har’el can’t say for sure whether Free the Bid has resulted in a significant increase in the number of women making ads but initial reports from agencies are positive. “From what we can tell … there has been more work directed by women since Free the Bid got traction,” she explains. “These are not concrete numbers though. There are a lot of issues that prevent us from getting cold numbers. We’re working with agencies to make it more accountable.”

Free the Bid’s website also includes a directory showcasing more than 300 female filmmakers. Har’el says “a good number” have landed more jobs after being featured and some of the unsigned directors have received commercial representation.

The ad world, which is trying to appeal to a market in which 85% of consumer decisions are being made by women, is losing creative voices and money from the consumers it doesn’t manage to connect to

Har’el is reluctant to take credit for this but acknowledges that the initiative has sparked an important conversation about how to tackle gender inequality and prompted several brands and agencies to take action.

Addressing this imbalance is important not just to make young women and girls more aware of opportunities available to them but also to ensure that the film and ad industries are producing more diverse stories.

“A lot of girls grow up thinking they can be a princess or a model. They have very limited expectations of their role in the world because they lack role models who are celebrated in the way their male counterparts are,” says Har’el.

There are many great female directors working in the film industry today – from Kathryn Bigelow to Ava duVernay and a wave of new talent working in horror, including Raw director Julia Ducournau and The Babadook director Jennifer Kent. But these women remain vastly outnumbered in their fields.

The work that is being produced with women in mind and by women in the past year or two proves again and again that there are many ways to portray women that haven’t been explored

In advertising, the success of This Girl Can and Like a Girl show the potential impact of campaigns that understand and speak to women – yet the majority of ads continue to be made by men.

Har’el sees this as a major problem: “The ad world which is trying to appeal to a market in which 85% of consumer decisions are being made by women is losing creative voices and money from the consumers it doesn’t manage to connect to,” she says.

“The work that is being produced with women in mind and by women in the past year or two proves again and again that there are many ways to portray women that haven’t been explored,” she adds.

Still from LoveTrue by Alma Har'el. The film was backed by Shia LaBeouf
Still from LoveTrue by Alma Har’el

“On top of that, I would say that men show women in their lives a side of themselves they don’t show other men. The fact we don’t see that side of men is harmful to young men just as much. That is, to me, something we don’t speak enough about. Women aren’t just needed so they can create new representations of women – their voice is needed to also show a different side of men. To tell new stories that we wouldn’t hear otherwise.”

Har’el grew up in Israel before moving to the UK and is now based in the US. She became interested in film as a way to combine her love of other art forms – namely dance, theater and video.

Her only formal filmmaking training is a short course at Lambeth College in London – “[It was very short and practical…. I learned how to edit but the equipment was old and I never used it again,” she says. She taught herself how to edit using Avid and Final Cut and learned the “logic” of storytelling through downloading and recutting existing films.

After making video art for nightclubs and live mixing videos at concerts, Har’el went on to direct videos for Beirut. In 2011, she was one of 12 filmmakers given $10,000 to make a video for a Sigur Ros track. She chose the song Fjögur Piano and made a seven-minute film starring Shia LaBeouf and Denna Thompsen as a couple in a troubled relationship. It has been viewed over four million times on YouTube and won a Webby Award.

Making commercials and music videos provided Har’el with the money she needed to create her first feature film, Bombay Beach. It has also been a great learning experience for the director: “Once you start making commercials, you realise that you get to work with some incredibly talented people from all around the world and learn about how companies think and how advertising works, for good or bad. It’s fascinating,” she says.

Bombay Beach focuses on the lives of male residents in a run-down town in California and combines footage of their daily lives and surroundings with surreal dance scenes. It’s evocative and beautifully shot: the Guardian described the film as “a rich slice of Americana” while The New York Times said it “looks and feels like a fever dream about an alternate universe”.

The film was named Best Feature Documentary at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival. Its success is all the more impressive considering it was made on a shoestring budget with money from Har’el and screenwriter Yoaz Boakin. “It was just me in my car with a $600 camera, two mics and my dog,” says Har’el. The film was edited on a laptop with Joe Lindquist and Terry Yates and choreographed by Har’el’s friend Paula Present.

After making Bombay Beach, Har’el went on to direct LoveTrue – a process that took four years. The film explores three love stories in different corners of the US and stars a stripper in Alaska, a man in Hawaii who discovers he is not his son’s biological father and a singer-songwriter in New York who is dealing with her parents’ sudden separation. Har’el uses actors to speculate about the future of the film’s characters and interviews them about playing those roles.

It was another small production: Har’el shot the film herself and worked with producer Chris Leggett to make it. She convinced Flying Lotus to write the film’s score after spending a year tracking him down. “I think he’s one of the greatest musicians of our time,” she says.

The film has received some positive reviews from Time Out, Variety and Little White Lies and like Bombay Beach, was praised for its unusual approach to storytelling. Har’el received some funding from Unit Sofa Films and grants from Tribeca and Cinereach but says it wouldn’t have been possible to make the film without funding from Shia LeBeouf. The actor sent her a cheque in the post after Har’el showed him some footage she had shot in Alaska following their collaboration on Fjögur Piano.

Speaking about LoveTrue and Bombay Beach, she says: “I never went to film school so in a way Bombay Beach and LoveTrue were my film school.”

“I’m very lucky that I could have these kind of pure experiences and make films that are not concerned with financial gain, commercial success or even awards for that matter. With [LoveTrue] I felt more responsibility because of Shia’s kindness and support but when we finished he said to me to never bring up money or how many people saw it. Just to be happy we got to make it.”

This is a rare opportunity for any director but filmmakers like Har’el desperately need the support and trust of investors like LeBeouf who will encourage them to develop their craft and offer new perspectives in filmmaking.

As well as pushing boundaries in her film work, Har’el hopes to challenge convention in commercial projects for brands. Her recent Jellywolf film for Chanel offered a fun and surreal alternative to cliched fragrance that capture female sexuality from the perspective of the male gaze.

The eight-minute film shows a young woman (Kiersey Clemons) experiencing scent through a series of hallucinatory visions and was inspired by synaesthesia. Har’el says she wanted to create a more empowering alternative to traditional perfume films and create a “trippy love letter for women looking to find their voice.”

Like most filmmakers, Har’el has worked hard to make her voice heard. And as a woman, she believes she has had to work even harder than her male peers to show what she can do. This hasn’t stopped her – if anything, it’s only made her more determined to prove herself. “When I set out to shoot Bombay Beach, and I couldn’t afford to pay a cinematographer, I shot it myself. It made me stronger and a better artist,” she says.

I think the only way to bring change is for women to identify as female directors as a political act

There is a growing acknowledgement of the need to support female creatives but there is much more work to be done and Har’el believes the solution lies in taking “affirmative action” – making a conscious effort to celebrate and nurture female talent and offer more opportunities to women. “The problem is that some people see affirmative action as a form of reverse racism or gender discrimination,” she says.

“Some women have a hard time identifying as female directors and want to get the credit they deserve for their work as directors regardless of gender. I myself think the only way to bring change is for women to identify as female directors as a political act and come together to celebrate each other until our voices are heard. At the same time, it is up to people in positions of power to understand that it is for their own benefit to take affirmative action and tell new stories that people are thirsty for.”

As for her own plans, Har’el says she wants to continue making commercial work that can fund her art and allow her to experiment with “genrebending” films. “I hope more female filmmakers will have that balance so they can support themselves while finding their voice,” she adds.

Alma Har'el with Benny on the set of Bombay Beach - a documentary about the Californian town of the same name
Alma Har’el with Benny on the set of Bombay Beach – a documentary about the Californian town of the same name

Alma Har’el is represented by B-Reel Films (BRF) in the UK and Europe and by Epoch Films in the US. See more of her work at almaharel.com

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